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"Spiders of Mirkwood" by John Howe
General Information
LocationsAvathar, Ered Gorgoroth, Nan Dungortheb, Torech Ungol, Ephel Dúath, Eastern hills, Dol Guldur, and Mirkwood
People"Lesser broods" and "spiders of Nan Dungortheb"
Members"Miserable mates" and Shelob
Physical Description
Skin colorBlack or grey
GalleryImages of spiders

The Spiders were eight-legged creatures that captured their prey in intricate webs. Many spiders of Middle-earth reached a colossal size.


There was a sinister side to the spiders of Middle-earth that entered it with the monstrous Ungoliant in the years before the First Age. A gigantic creature of spider-shape, it was she who destroyed the Two Trees of Valinor by sucking the light out of them, and escaped with Melkor into the lands of Middle-earth. There other great spiders already dwelt. Though Ungoliant disappeared into the far south, she left the northern lands infested with her offspring. During the First Age, the mountains of the Ered Gorgoroth were infested with these monsters, and became a place of dread.

Beren fought some of the spiders of Nan Dungortheb, possibly Shelob herself, when he passed through to enter Doriath.[1]

The most infamous of Ungoliant's children lived far to the south and east of the Ered Gorgoroth, on the borders of the land of Mordor. This was Shelob, who haunted a network of tunnels watching the pass of Cirith Ungol, making a living on hapless Orcs and anyone else who happened to come down the passage. She had offspring of her own, smaller than she but with a cruel intelligence, that spread throughout the Ephel Dúath and the Eastern hills, spreading as far north as Dol Guldur and Mirkwood. The return of the Necromancer seemed to have emboldened the spiders' hungry tendencies. It was creatures like these that Bilbo Baggins encountered in The Hobbit, and after fighting them he gave his sword its name Sting.

Tolkien says of Shelob, "Most like a spider she was," [emphasis added], and the offspring of Ungoliant differed from normal spiders in respects beyond their enormous size. Bilbo sees the Mirkwood spiders' eyes as "Insect eyes,"[2] and Shelob's eyes are "clustered" and "many-windowed", with "a thousand facets", like insects' compound eyes.[3] However, normal spiders do not have compound eyes. Tolkien may not have been over-concerned with the difference between spiders and insects, as in the same chapter of The Hobbit he refers to spiders as "hunting and spinning insects". Another difference is that when spiders grow, they moult their skins, but Shelob's hide was "ever thickened from within with layer on layer of evil growth."[4]

Shelob is consistently described as "stinging" and having a "sting".[5][6][7] That has been taken to mean a sting like that of some insects, which normal spiders do not have.[4] However, in the quotation from "Letter 163" in the "Inspiration" section below, Tolkien used the verb "sting" in the rare sense of a spider's bite. Thus all his references to Shelob's stinging may mean biting.

Other names

In Sindarin, the word for "spider" is ungol.[8] It is found in such names as Torech Ungol, Ungoliant, and Cirith Ungol.

In Gnomish, one of Tolkien's early conceptions of an Elven language, the word for "spider" is cing or cingwin (a struck-out word was gung). A deleted Qenya word for "spider" was ung-we.[9]


Tolkien made inconsistent comments on his feelings about spiders. In a letter to W. H. Auden (quoted more completely below), he wrote, "I do not dislike spiders particularly, and have no urge to kill them. I usually rescue those whom I find in the bath!"

However, in an interview with Jan Broberg in 1961, Tolkien said, as translated by John-Henri Holmberg, "I don't like spiders. It's not a pathological fear, but I rather won't have anything to do with them.[10]

Likewise the writer Richard Lupoff asked Tolkien whether the giant spiders in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom books had inspired Shelob, and Tolkien replied in a letter:

Source hunting is a great entertainment but I myself do not find it particularly useful. I did read many of Edgar Rice Burroughs' earlier works, but I developed a dislike for his Tarzan even greater than my distaste for spiders. Spiders I had met long before Burroughs began to write, and I do not think he is in any way responsible for Shelob. At any rate I retain no memory of the Siths or the Apt.

Tolkien was bitten by a tarantula when he was a small boy in South Africa. Many writers have suggested that the incident underlies the horrifying and deadly giant spiders in The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings.[11][12] Tolkien saw no reason to accept that explanation, and he specifically said that his purpose in putting spiders into The Hobbit was to scare his son Michael, who had a fear of them. But some commentators have avoided committing themselves to saying the analysis must be false,[11][13] as seen also in the quotation from Humphrey Carpenter's biography below, and Tolkien did not commit himself either.

...when Ronald [Tolkien] was beginning to walk, he stumbled on a tarantula. It bit him, and he ran in terror across the garden until the nurse snatched him up and sucked out the poison. When he grew up he could remember a hot day and running in fear through long, dead grass, but the memory of the tarantula itself faded, and he said that the incident left him with no especial dislike of spiders. Nevertheless, he wrote more than once of monstrous spiders with venomous bites.

I knew that the way [for Frodo, Sam, and Gollum] was guarded by a Spider. And if that has anything to do with my being stung by a tarantula when a small child, people are welcome to the notion (supposing the improbable, that any one is interested). I can only say that I remember nothing about it, should not know it if I had not been told; and I do not dislike spiders particularly, and have no urge to kill them. I usually rescue those whom I find in the bath!

Regarding the spiders in The Hobbit:

I put in the spiders largely because this was, you remember, primarily written for my children (at least I had them in mind), and one of my sons [Michael] in particular dislikes spiders with a great intensity. I did it to thoroughly frighten him and it did!

Throughout his life, Tolkien’s son Michael had what he called “a deep-rooted abhorrence of spiders.”

Portrayal in adaptations

1980: Der Hobbit (1980 German radio series):

The spiders of Mirkwood are played by Uta Hallant and Lieselotte Rau.

1982: The Hobbit (1982 text adventure game)

In the text adventure game, spiders don't make any explicit appearance, although you will see "Pale Bulbous Eyes" as you and your party travel along the Old Forest Road. If you stay on the road for too long, something will leap down from the trees and kill you.

2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King:

See Shelob: Portrayal in adaptations

2007: The Lord of the Rings Online:

Non-player (NPC, computer controlled) spiders are found in a number of areas of Middle-earth. Players can play a spider in the Player-versus-Player (PvP) area of the Ettenmoors once the player reaches level ten. Spiders in The Lord of the Rings Online have the ability to root and spit poison from a distance.
The appearance of spiders vary from zone to zone for NPC spiders and from rank to rank for player controlled spiders. They all look like very large spiders from the size of a cat up to the size of a large elephant.

2012-4: The Hobbit film series:

The spiders of Mirkwood are portrayed in the first two films, An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug. In the former, they attack Radagast's dwelling in Rhosgobel, but are driven away by him. Radagast discovers that they came from the ruins of Dol Guldur (implying that they are drawn to the power of the Necromancer lurking there), and deduces that they are descendants of Ungoliant. In the latter film, their role is faithful to their portrayal in the novel. As in the book, they are capable of speech (although Bilbo is only capable of understanding them while wearing the Ring). When one of the spiders screams about how Bilbo's Elvish blade "stings" it, it is then that Bilbo decides to give his weapon a name.

2017: Middle-earth: Shadow of War:

See Shelob: Portrayal in adaptations

See also


  1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "Shelob's Lair", p. 723
  2. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, "Flies and Spiders"
  3. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "Shelob's Lair"
  4. 4.0 4.1 John Rateliff. 2007. The History of the Hobbit: Mr. Baggins, volume 1. Harper-Collins, p. 322
  5. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "Shelob's Lair"
  6. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "The Choices of Master Samwise"
  7. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Grey Havens"
  8. J.R.R. Tolkien, "Unfinished index for The Lord of the Rings", in Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (eds), The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, p. 490
  9. J.R.R. Tolkien, "I-Lam na-Ngoldathon: The Grammar and Lexicon of the Gnomish Tongue", in Parma Eldalamberon XI (edited by Christopher Gilson, Arden R. Smith, and Patrick H. Wynne), pp. 26, 43
  10. Quoted by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, "Addenda and Corrigenda to The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (2006), Vol. 2: Reader's Guide: Arranged by Date" dated 23 December 2010, hammondandscull.com (accessed 19 June 2024). The Swedish version is "Jag tycker inte om spindlar. Det är ingen patologisk skräck, men jag vill helst inte ha med dem in att göra." "I would rather not" might be closer to what Tolkien said in English.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Mark Horne. 2011. J. R. R. Tolkien. Thomas Nelson Publishers, p. 2
  12. Emily Asher-Perrin, "We Can Probably Blame the Tarantula that Bit J. R. R. Tolkien for Most of the Spiders in Fantasy" dated 4 November 2016, Tor.com (accessed 22 March 2016)
  13. Deborah Webster Rogers; Ivor I. Rogers. 1980. J. R. R. Tolkien. "Tolkien had been bitten by a tarantula in South Africa, and Michael had a horror of spiders, as do many people; so the author could be drawing on either personal or public feeling in his portrayal of arachnids."